Reprinted from 3.21: Canada's Down Syndrome Magazine (Issue #4: The Back to School Issue). Click here to download the full magazine.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adjust to a highly unusual new normal where many of our everyday routines have shifted into survival mode. While many of us are equipped with tools and strategies to deal with these changes it is a well-known fact that individuals with Down syndrome can find such transitions very challenging. The loss of routine and structure can be a source of anxiety and fear, often resulting in challenging behaviors.
The return to school transition can be a stressful situation at the best of times, and with new COVID-19 safety guidelines in place, school is going to look very different come fall of 2020. One of the best ways to help with this transition is to prepare your child with Down syndrome for what is going to happen. Although there will be some aspects of the school routine that will remain the same, many changes will be in place, and providing your child with the opportunity to get used to these changes will help with the transition in September. Keep in mind that it is very difficult for individuals with Down syndrome to mentally picture or anticipate what a future event might look like, so frontloading them with information can help ease their anxieties and allow them to have more successful outcomes.
Here are a few ways that you can help with this transition:
If possible, ask your child’s principal and teachers to schedule a visit to the school before it officially reopens. This way your child can familiarise themselves with their environment again, see their teacher and get used to the layout of the school. They may feel reassured to know that some things have not changed. If an in-person visit is not feasible, you can arrange a meeting (virtual or face-to-face) with the principal or teacher to discuss changes in the school environment and how you can best prepare your child. If this is also not practical, you can ask the teacher to take some photos or videos of key places in the school and create a visual tour to share with your child on a frequent basis. Individuals with Down syndrome are strong visual learners, so incorporate pictures and videos where you can.
Another way to prepare your child for a return to school is through the use of social stories – individualized short stories that are used to teach expectations around new social situations that your child may find stressful or confusing. You can create a story using pictures from your child’s school to pre-teach them the new school routine and help them adjust to new rules or expectations. The Down Syndrome Resource Foundation has a sample social story that can be used as a template to customize one for your child. Click here to download a copy. Once you have created a social story that is tailored to your child’s circumstances, read it with them often and talk about the return to school in a positive tone, pointing out all the good things that will await your child despite the changes brought on because of COVID.
Start At Home
For kids with Down syndrome, it is likely to take longer to adjust to the new social distancing rules in school. If possible, rather than waiting for the return to school to teach these new rules, you can start by practising at home. Contact your child’s school to get a list of the new protective measures that will be in place. Teachers can take photos of places in the school where new measures have been implemented, such as one-way hallways and new classroom layouts. Help them practice handwashing, cleaning surfaces and even getting them more comfortable wearing a mask. For resources on mask adherence and visuals for hand washing, please click here.
Advocacy and Education
It is also important to advocate for your child’s learning needs. Many school officials may be unaware of the fact that children with Down syndrome benefit greatly from the structured learning environment of school and that video instruction is a challenge for them, creating significant demands on executive functioning skills such as attention, planning and memory. In addition, the lack of peer interaction can have an adverse effect on the development of their social-emotional skills. Many children rely on school-based networks for friendship and may not have access to these connections elsewhere, especially if they are not in an inclusive classroom setting.
You may find that despite all these advanced preparations your child may still refuse to go back to school. This can be due to a variety of reasons including fear of the unknown, anxiety surrounding new classmates or teachers, and a general difficulty with adjusting to a new routine. Some strategies to help your child work through this reluctance can include:
1. Provide your child with the opportunity to communicate their fears. Using visual supports and supported communication techniques can be helpful. Your child’s speech language pathologist can provide some guidance on this goal as well.
2. Talk to your child’s teacher and support staff regarding their refusal to return to school. If everyone is aware and on the same page it can make it easier to collaborate on strategies.
3. Create a social story about anxiety and return to school and read the book together as part of your child’s evening routine. You can then help them deal with any worries by suggesting how to cope with them in the future.
4. Provide reward and praise for any progress or attempt made to complete school-related tasks such as packing their backpack, making their lunch, putting on their school clothes, or walking to their school.
5. Help your child stick to a routine at home and make learning playful by incorporating it into everyday activities like cooking, family reading time, or while playing games.
6. Help your child identify strategies to regulate, reduce and monitor emotions, and reduce stress. Deep breathing and mindfulness skills can be a great way for children to manage their anxiety independently. You can collaborate on this goal with your child’s speech language pathologist or occupational therapist.
At the end of the day, it is important to remember that transitions are a challenge for individuals with Down syndrome, and the COVID-19 pandemic has just further complicated the process. However, with the appropriate preparation and a continued collaborative effort, students with Down syndrome can successfully return to school and resume their learning. Here’s to a fun and fruitful school year!